Engineer Your World: Engineering Design and Problem Solving for High Schools

Cheryl Farmer

Engineering design is not simply a useful tool for teaching science and mathematics content, but it is also a unique discipline in which science and mathematics are employed as tools for solving design challenges. With generous support from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and in partnership with national organizations including NASA, the UTeachEngineering program at the University of Texas, Austin, has undertaken to demonstrate how rigorous engineering content can be deployed in secondary classrooms. Together, we have developed, piloted, refined, and deployed a year-long high school engineering course built on a foundation of solid research in the learning sciences, couched in the context of a rigorous engineering design process, and scaffolded to build engineering skills and habits of mind. We have also tested a variety of teacher preparation and support models that continue to evolve in response to the needs of our diverse teacher population.

Engineer Your World actively engages students in authentic engineering practices to build engineering skills and habits of mind. The course scaffolds student learning over six units, each of which is structured as an engineering design challenge. The Engineer Your World classroom is a project-based environment in which approximately 80 percent of students’ time is spent on hands-on activities, and the balance is spent on documenting and reflecting on their work, preparing presentations and reports, and participating in direct instruction. Students in the course employ a standardized engineering design process to address design challenges that can only be completed through the purposeful application of engineering principles and relevant mathematics and science concepts. These concepts, which may include both prior knowledge and new knowledge, are employed when and only when they are necessary for students’ successful completion of the challenge at hand.

Prior to teaching Engineer Your World, teachers attend a targeted two-week professional development workshop designed to enhance both their engineering content knowledge and their pedagogical content knowledge. The workshop, the content of which is aligned to the course and its underlying learning standards, is appropriate for teachers from diverse backgrounds. It emphasizes active engagement and problem solving, conveys clear ideas about effective teaching and learning, and offers participants frequent opportunities for critical reflection on teaching.

Ongoing support for Engineer Your World teachers continues to evolve. Over the past three years, we have experimented with a variety of options including direct help from program staff to teachers, virtual resources, and engineer mentors from the public and private sectors. Based on observations by project personnel as well as feedback from teachers, administrators, mentors, and evaluators, UTeachEngineering has developed an integrative instructional coaching model that will be piloted with all Engineer Your World teachers in 2013–14. It is anticipated that a suite of supporting resources will eventually be connected to one another and to the course content through a hybrid of a learning management system and an online collaboration tool that is anticipated to launch in 2014–15.

Documented Results
In 2011–12, Engineer Your World was piloted by 8 teachers with more than 230 students in seven Texas high schools. In 2012–13, the program expanded to 24 teachers serving 850 students in eight states. The Engineer Your World network includes urban, suburban, and rural schools with student populations ranging from a few hundred to approximately 3,000. The program is offered in STEM academies and comprehensive high schools, in single-gender and mixed-gender classrooms, and at all grade levels from 9 through 12. Engineer Your World teachers are similarly diverse, with experience ranging from 0 to 24 years of teaching. Some have engineering degrees or engineering work experience, while others have had no engineering exposure prior to teaching the course.

All Engineer Your World teachers participate in research and evaluation activities. Over the past two years, the project has examined student artifacts and pre-/post-tests, gathered informal feedback during classroom visits, and engaged an external evaluator to conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the curriculum and teacher support programs. While these efforts are ongoing, they have already led directly to such revisions as modification of course scaffolding, streamlining of course materials, development and testing of various student assessment instruments, creation of an instructional coaching model, and conception of an online learning management system/collaboration tool.

Potential Applications
Engineer Your World aligns with the Next Generation Science Standards as well as a number of states’ standards for engineering science credit. While the course was originally developed to meet the requirements of a junior-/senior-level science course in Texas, it is being offered successfully to freshmen and sophomores in a variety of school settings across the nation. The success of the course at this level has afforded opportunities for collaboration with schools seeking to introduce engineering early in the high school course sequence. A number of partnerships between UTeachEngineering and other national organizations are emerging around this model.

For More Information
Berland, L., Allen, D., Crawford, R., Farmer, C., & Guerra, L. (2012). Learning sciences guided high school engineering curriculum development. American Society for Engineering Education. (Accepted for publication in annual conference proceedings.)

Farmer, C., Allen, D., Berland, L., Crawford, R., & Guerra, L.(2012). Engineer Your World: An innovative approach to developing a high school engineering design course. American Society for Engineering Education. (Accepted for publication in annual conference proceedings.)

Guerra, L., Allen, D., Berland, L., Crawford, R., & Farmer, C. (2012). A unique approach to characterizing the engineering design process. American Society for Engineering Education. (Accepted for publication in annual conference proceedings.)

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